Because of Kurt Cobain's suicide note, "It's better to burn out/Than to fade away" is the most remembered line of of Neil Young's "Hey, Hey, My, My (Out of the Blue)," but the variation "It's better to burn out/ Than it is to rust" is every bit as evocative.
My favorite network pilot of the fall of 2010 was FOX's "Lone Star." It died spectacularly after only two airings, doing the sort of inconceivably low ratings that have taken their place as the stuff of industry legend.
On one hand, that failure was a TV-level tragedy (not to be confused with actual tragedy) because I like to see good things succeed, especially when those good things suggest different storytelling avenues from the ones normally followed on network primetime.
On the other hand, I'll always have a pristine memory of the "Lone Star" pilot, which I loved, and the second episode, which I quite enjoyed. I never had to worry about the predictable, hypothetical lag from episodes four through six. I never had to twiddle my thumbs through hypothetical episodes seven though 10 as the producers responded to low ratings by tinkering and stunt-casting. I never had to sit through the desperation of episode 13 with its hypothetical absurd cliffhanger to try to force FOX into renewal.
"Lone Star" burnt out, but it did so with authority. Kyle Killen lit the match and America and FOX licked their collective fingers and snuffed it out.
My favorite network pilot of last fall was ABC's "Pan Am." I didn't love it, but I marveled at its high production values, stellar direction and charismatic cast and perhaps because I was comparing it directly to NBC's "Playboy Club" and indirectly to a lackluster crop of new fall shows, I admired its aspirations and its potential scope.
Unlike "Lone Star," "Pan Am" didn't instantly burn out. In fact, it premiered to nearly 11 million viewers and a robust 18-49 rating. It wasn't an instant hit, but ABC got people in the door, which seemed like a minor miracle.
Instead, "Pan Am" rusted. The show changed. Viewers tuned out. ABC kept airing the show opposite powerhouse dramas and major events and it kept getting clobbered.
Five months later, "Pan Am" is probably done. Sunday (Feb. 19) night's episode was only the season finale, but barring some sort of overhaul of what constitutes "success" and "failure" on network TV, it will also be its series finale.
Given what "Pan Am" has been for most of its truncated season, I'm not going to mourn the show's passing for very long. The cast never ceased to be charismatic and talented and the production values remained pretty admirable, but "Pan Am" lost any sense of its identity many months ago. The jumble of half-hearted Season 2 pitches in Sunday's finale only confirmed that lack of direction moving forward.
Neither "Lone Star" nor "Pan Am" will see a back-nine, much less a second season, but with "Lone Star" we saw only the fall, but with "Pan Am," there was a complete decline and fall, all in accelerated motion.
More on the "Pan Am" finale after the break...